The State is failing children with special educational needs who cannot secure appropriate school places, a report from the Ombudsman for Children has found.
When these children are not included within the mainstream school system, it “constitutes discrimination”, the report concludes.
It states that the State has failed to provide school places for some of these children, particularly in black spots such as Dublin and Cork.
The Ombudsman for Children’s Office has received complaints in relation to children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) who have not been able to secure appropriate places in primary and secondary schools.
“This situation is a clear failure on the part of the State, which has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education of every child,” Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon says in the report’s foreword.
The report makes recommendations on how the State can address the problem of children across the country who are still waiting to secure school places for the upcoming academic year.
The Department of Education should prioritise the publication of a plan to ensure that there are enough school places to meet the forecasted needs of children with special educational needs in local communities, it says.
The report also urges the Department of Education to mandate schools to build or re-purpose appropriate existing accommodation to meet the needs of these children in the short-term.
The report also recommends that data on the number of children without an appropriate school place is published centrally every year.
In particular, the report stresses the need for appropriate school places to be made available for children with special educational needs close to their homes.
Some 15,500 children currently have to travel outside of their school catchment area every day.
The report also says that it is “not acceptable” that another 1,455 students are in receipt of home tuition as a result of the lack of specialised placements, and that as many as 270 autistic children require the support of a special school and do not have an offer of a school place for September.
The ombudsman’s office recommends that home tuition should operate as intended – “as a time limited emergency measure and tool of last resort”.
Parents have described to the ombudsman’s office how the onus is on them to put their child’s “name forward everywhere and simply pray that a door is opened to them”.
In another testimony in the report, a parent described how finding a school place is akin to having an additional part-time job.
Approximately 25% of students in Ireland are estimated to have special educational needs. The ombudsman’s office predicts that the situation will deteriorate further unless proactive steps are taken to immediately increase capacity building locally.
In a statement included in the report, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education said that “providing for an appropriate school placement for every child with SEN in a timely and supported manner is a key priority”.
It noted that the number of special classes in the State has increased almost fivefold in the past decade, and said that adding capacity in schools to support SEN provision was also a priority of the National Development Plan.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme, Dr Muldoon said that the “problem of a lack of school places, for children with special needs, is going to remain with us for another period of time”.
In relation to the efficacy of S37a of the Education Act, whereby the Minister can compel a school to take children with special needs if they are not doing it, Dr Muldoon said: “It’s a start. We investigated a case like this ten years ago where a child was refused 26 times a place in a school spent two years in home tuition and that is what led to a change in the legislation and led to s37a.
“But s.37A takes too long to provide the changes that we want, it allows everything to be negotiated, for schools to say no and to opt out, and it takes maybe two and three years [to work].
“We need to find ourselves in a situation where the Government can insist that schools will provide the resources they need and schools have to take it on board, and to create that local capacity so that a child can have an inclusive education in whatever school is nearby.”
The Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon, spoke to @SarahAMcInerney about a report that concluded the State is failing children with special educational needs who cannot secure appropriate school places#rtept pic.twitter.com/wy5XFIUF4J
— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) June 21, 2022